Does improved student attendance lead to improved student achievement?
Join prime ministers, premiers and education ministers from all sides of politics if you believe it does. They regularly tell us about the need to “improve” or “increase” attendance in order to improve achievement.
We recently had unprecedented access to state government data on individual school and student attendance and achievement in over 120 schools (as part of a major 2009-2013 study of the reform and leadership of schools serving Indigenous students and communities) so we decided to test the widely held assumption.
What we found is both surprising and challenging.
The overall claim that increased attendance is linked with improved achievement seems like common sense. It stands to reason that if a student attends more, s/he is more likely to perform better on annually administered standardised tests. The inverse also seems intuitive and common sensical: that if an individual student doesn’t attend, s/he is less likely to achieve well on these conventional measures.
But sometimes what appears to make sense about an individual student may not factually hold up when we look at the patterns across a larger school or system.
In our research we were studying background patterns on attendance and achievement using very conventional empirical statistical analysis. What we found in first up was that, whatever else we may hope, school level attendance rates generally don’t change all that much.
Despite officially supported policies and high profile school and regional foci, schools making big improvement in attendance rates are the exception, and are very rare.
Further, we found, the vast majority (around 76%) of the level of school attendance empirically is related to geographic remoteness, the percentage of Indigenous kids, and levels of socio-economic marginalisation. These are matters that for the most part are beyond the purview of schools and systems to change. Most importantly and most surprisingly, we found there is no relationship between school attendance and school level NAPLAN results. This is the case whether you are looking at overall levels and rates of change or the achievement of specific groups of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
The particular policy story that improved attendance will improve or bootstrap conventional achievement has no basis in fact at a school level. The policy making and funding that goes into lifting attendance rates of whole schools or systems assumes erroneously that improvements in achievement by individual students will logically follow.
The bottom line is you can’t simply generalise an individual story and apply it to schools. The data shows this.
Further, and this is important in current reform debates, we observed that the very few schools with high percentages of Indigenous children that both increased attendance and achievement also had implemented significant curriculum and teaching method reforms over the same period examined.
In other words, attending school may or may not help generally, but improving achievement depends on what children do once we get them to school.
In our view, there is no short cut around the need for substantial ongoing reforms of curriculum and teaching methods and affiliated professional development for teachers. Building quality teaching and learning relations are the problem and the solution – not attendance or testing or accountability policies per se.
James Ladwig is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle and Adjunct Professor in the Victoria Institute of Victoria University. He is internationally recognised for his expertise in educational research and school reform.
Allan Luke is Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Education at the Queensland University of Technology and Adjunct Professor in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada, where he works mentoring first nations academics. He is an educator, researcher, and theorist studying multiliteracies, linguistics, family literacy, and educational policy. Dr. Luke has written or edited over 14 books and more than 140 articles and book chapters.